Behind the Uniform, Part II

Wolfville's historic Blomidon InnIt’s fantastic to see so many of our contributors authoring posts here at Man the Capstan! Things are really picking up, and we have some exciting events coming up on the horizon.

Before I get into more detail on the uniform construction process (and in this part I’ll be looking at the materials used for the coat, as well as some detail on a few accessories), I did want to mention that Man the Capstan had its first “gathering” of sorts—a briefing, if you will. We came together on September 9th for nearly three hours, and discussed the project, its present status, and where we hope to be in the near future. We also made some arrangements for an upcoming event for the Capstan Crew—as most of the costumes will be nearing completion by October 31st, Man the Capstan may be ready to debut the reproductions in public very shortly, and to a great location.

I won’t get into too much detail on what we have planned, as that’s for another blog post!

Back to the uniform, now (in case you missed it, here’s Part I). We started gathering supplies for the first R.N. reproduction in high summer. After we had received the patterns for the coats, we needed to find an appropriate material that would best reflect what was used historically. Back then, of course, the most accessible material (and the most practical) for military use was wool. Wool varied in quality, depending on how wealthy a given officer was, but the most common was broadcloth—contemporary broadcloth can be made out of nylon or polyester, but in England in our time period, it was made of heavy strands of wool. When I say “heavy”, mind you, I really do mean heavy. You put on a full dress coat, sans lace, you’re looking at eight to twelve pounds of cloth!

Close up of the gabardine, and the watch!

Ever in the pursuit of historical consistency, we took to the Internet and attempted to find some wool goods, specifically a broadcloth or coatweight wool. Unfortunately, not only is this material largely inaccessible for what we need, it’s also exceedingly expensive. For the yardage we needed, broadcloth was out of the picture. We took a trip to a fabric store in the city, hoping to find something cheaper, and happened upon gabardine—even more important, we found it in the precise colours we needed. Navy, off-white (an ivory kind of colour), and scarlet (for our intrepid Marine). Gabardine was far more affordable as well, and we could easily line the coats in order to capture the proper weight of broadcloth. A coat of this manner has to hang properly, and we thought we could achieve such an effect. You can see an example of the gabardine in the pocket-watch picture, to the right.

Before any serious cutting could commence, it seems fate struck and we hit jackpot. Our seamstress, on an outing to another fabric store, happened upon a heavy wool-nylon blend (80/20). It was navy, it was heavy, and it was perfect. It had the texture, appearance, and weight of a heavy-woven wool cloth. Thankfully, there was enough left (it was a clearance item) to sew one R.N. coat.

The wool-nylon blend, cut and ready to go

So the first coat was made out of the wool-nylon blend (you can see it being cut out, to the left) . The interior of the coat is lined with an ivory satin and ivory gabardine (the arms and torso are in the satin, while the tails are lined in the gabardine). The pants were a polyester blend (which is nice as far as wrinkles and creasing are concerned), and are also navy in colour. The waistcoat is gabardine (also lined in satin), and all told, every piece came together perfectly. More than anything we were increasingly impressed with the look and feel of the wool-nylon blend. It was sturdy and really fit the part.

Textiles aside, one of the most important part to the R.N. uniform is the gold and glitter. Of all the components for the R.N. uniform, the cloth and the lace were some of the most expensive. Lace is tricky—you can’t afford to be cheap (no pun intended, there) with the lace. It is such an iconic part of the uniform; the difference between a costume and a uniform, we soon found out, was the difference between cheap, fabric-store gold lace, and authentic metallic military lace.

Gilt wire lace, the expensive stuff

We had a few choices here, as well. The Royal Navy used a variety of laces. In the late 18th century (ending sometime in 90s) the Navy used bias-and-stand gold lace—a gold metallic tape with a very unique pattern (of which the lace is known for). Towards the 19th century the Navy adopted a gilt wire lace (shown right). The bias-and-stand feels more to be threaded metal, whereas the gilt wire feels like woven wire. It’s sturdier, more difficult to work with, and very very expensive. We found some gilt wire for $22.00 CDN a metre, and we needed fourteen metres! That would be $310.00 for lace per uniform, which works out to about a grand on lace alone for the uniforms. That really wasn’t feasible.

The bias and stand lace on the left, with buttons

So we opted for the bias-and-stand. It was still historically accurate, though perhaps a few years behind our intended period. The bias-and-stand proved to be easier to work with than the gilt wire (we actually procured some silver gilt wire for the Marine, but I won’t get into that right now) and has a certain charm of its own. The bias-and-stand was ordered from Military Heritage, a fantastic site that has a host of great supplies for reenactors and history enthusiasts. They’ve created uniforms and accessories for movie projects, documentaries as well as heritage work for the Government of Canada.

Royal Navy Buttons, ca. 1950

One of the greatest tools, we’ve found, has been eBay. The buttons for the coat (and the waistcoat) concerned us—many online sutlery and reenactment sites listed buttons as being quite expensive. When you need over thirty buttons per uniform, that can add up to be quite the unnecessary expense. Fortunately, eBay proved to be an invaluable resource. For our R.N. reproduction, we fount a lot of actual Royal Navy gold-tone buttons (featuring the King’s Crown)—we believe they date to the 50s, when Great Britain had a King. This was a relatively small expense, and we ordered enough buttons to cover both Royal Navy uniforms.

With the cloth, lace and buttons covered, I’ll save Part III for the sword, hat and boots! Stay tuned for more Captsan Updates here at Man the Capstan!

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About Dave

I am a twenty-two year old university student living in Nova Scotia, Canada. I am an avid naval history enthusiast, particularly the Regency/Napoleonic eras. I have a particular interest in the British Royal Navy and other Britannic military orders.

4 thoughts on “Behind the Uniform, Part II

  1. Cathy says:

    What a wonderful project, I can’t wait to see the finished jacket! I’m curious – what pattern are you using? Last year I made a jacket based on Jack Aubrey’s Master and Commander movie costume and I had to modify a Simplicity pattern (the end result was nowhere near as detailed as yours, it was more of a Halloween costume). So I was just wondering if there was a more historically accurate pattern out there. Thanks!

  2. Dave says:

    Hello Cathy!

    Thank you for your kind comments — I checked out your Aubrey uniform, and it looks like its been wonderfully sewn!

    The coat(s) use a heavily modified Butterick 3723, part of their “Making History” series. As you did with your Simplicity pattern, we had to modify it quite extensively; material was taken away and added, based on whatever historical sources we could get our hands on (Part I of Behind the Uniform talks about the National Maritime Museum and the uniform collections we studied). Unfortunately, Buterick 3723 is discontinued. We found it, by chance, on eBay! A fantastic source for anything, really.

    Thanks again for your interest!

  3. James says:

    Great to read about your project. Obviously you are having lots of fun; thank you for sharing this with us on the Web.

    I hope that you won’t mind a couple of comments, which are intended to be constructive:

    (1) I can’t tell for sure but from the photo of the buttons it appears that they feature a Queen’s Crown rather than a King’s Crown;

    (2) in any case, the buttons are domed. It would be more authentic to use flat buttons, which may be obtained from sutlers (but are relatively expensive, as you correctly note).

    Regards, James

  4. Michael says:

    I am attempting to make a R.N. “costume” myself. I’ll make it more authentic as time and funding permit. I have already found your blog to be very instructive.
    Did you end up making a full coat using the gabardine? If so, how did you line it to get it to drape correctly?

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